James Plunkett is the author of End State: 9 ways society is broken - and how we can fix it. He has worked for over a decade at the heart of public policy, exploring how to solve society's thorniest problems. In the late 2000s, he was working at 10 Downing Street when the full scale of the digital revolution started to make itself felt.
He has since spent a decade grappling with the social ramifications of technological change, leading influential studies into issues like the gig economy. Today he leads technology at one of the UK's biggest charities and sits on the board of the UK's Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and on the consumer panel for the Financial Conduct Authority. He tweets @jamestplunkett and writes a weekly blog on how we govern the future on Substack and Medium.
Digital transformation in context: You're part of something - but what is it?
Throughout history, intrepid reformers have driven profound changes in the way we govern our society. So what can we learn from this work for digital transformation today? In this talk James shares thoughts from his writing and over a decade leading public policy and digital work, showing why - despite the hard yards - we can be optimistic about change.
Click here to view James' slides.
Shaun Gomm: Please welcome to the stage, James Plunkett.
James Plunkett: [Applause] Thank you, excited to be here. So, what I really feel I should do is walk up and just play that organ for an hour and just kind of jam out, kick off the happy vibes with organ solo. So hi everyone, it's like a real pleasure to be here it's still kind of exciting to be in physical rooms of great people so lovely to be here. I'm gonna talk about kind of big picture context I guess to set a bit of the scene for the day.
And I'll say a bit more about that in a moment. I was on the way up here on the train and I had this experience I thought I would share this... I thought there would be enough designers in the room to empathise with my fury at a plug that you can't plug into. Anyway, and then I looked out the window and this is a bad photo...this is a rainbow, and for some reason I thought this was somehow a metaphor for digital transformation. So, kind of user-centred design struggling to persuade anyone of the value of asking someone whether something actually works.
But then a rainbow comes out, but it's a kind of crappy rainbow, and you there's a pylon in the way and you can't quite see the rainbow, but there's definitely something at the end of it. So anyway, I won't extend that metaphor, but it just struck me as somehow representative of the issues we're going to be talking about today. So, this is the title of the talk I'm going to give today - you are part of something, or we are part of something, but what the hell is it?
So, I'm going to try to situate the work that we do in context. You'll probably tell us I go through the talk I'm a bit of a philosopher by instinct, and I once did a philosophy class in the States and with a political philosopher Tim Scanlon. And someone at one point in the class put their hand up, some smart-ass student and asked Tim Scanlon ‘what is the point of philosophy?’, and I've always really liked his answer. He said, “There are distinctions to be made and it's important to make them well” which I kind of like.
And so I thought I would adapt his answer today by saying “There are definitions to be made and it's important to make them well”. By which I mean what is digital work? So, when we're doing digital work, what is it we are doing? What are we trying to do? And as I say, I'm going to try and answer that question by putting the work that we do in context. Because it seems to me that the work that we do day by day, the individual sort of pieces of work if you like. The things that we build, the battles that we fight, the arguments that we have, are a bit like bricks in a cathedral in the sense that they gain their significance and they gain their meaning if you like, when you zoom out, when you see them in in the bigger picture context of which they're a part.
And I've been thinking quite a lot about that recently, because I just came off the back of a seven or eight year stint doing digital transformation for want of a better phrase. And when you finish a long job, you find yourself reflecting quite a lot or zooming out, and thinking what was that all about? What were all those battles about? What was all that work that we did about? And what did all those days of work add up to? And also wondering sort of like, why is it so [ __ ] difficult? Why is this work so hard? Like what is it about the work that is so hard, but that at the same time, it feels so worthwhile? Why is it this weird mix of kind of just like grinds you down, and then you get up the next day and do it again? What is it about the work that explains that?
So, I'm going to give us, I guess, three ways of seeing digital work that I find helpful in kind of situating the work in a bigger picture context to make sense of it. So, the three ways of seeing, I guess, are historical analogy, a metaphor, and then a story. And they're different but complementary ways of seeing the work that we do, in situating it in that bigger picture context. And then we'll have some time hopefully, for questions and discussions at the end, as long as I don't do a sudden organ solo.
So I'll start with I'll start with the historical analogy. So I've always liked this phrase. It's a terrible cliche in a way but I think it's right, that history doesn't repeat but it rhymes. So this sense that the details of history are never the same, things change in terms of the specifics and the details. But patterns repeat themselves throughout history and so you can learn quite a lot by historical analogy, by saying what kinds of period in history are similar to the period we're living through now. And you can learn a lot from those analogies. The thing I'm going to talk through, the analogy I'm going to talk through, is based on the idea that what we are living through now is the emergence of a new practice of production.
And that phrase is quite important, and I'll say a bit more about it. Essentially it means that we're seeing a new way of generating value and meaning emerge, and we are part of the emergence of that new practice of production. And so I think we can learn a lot from the last time a new practice of production emerged in the world, and spread and changed the world and changed our lives in very profound ways. So I'm going to start by talking a bit about that, and jumping back in time to 1907 which was a really key moment in the emergence of a new practice of production at that time.
And I'm going to talk about a guy called Charles Sorensen who at that point in about 1907, one weekend, did one of the most important weekends of work in history when he went into the office, or rather into an empty factory building in Michigan. And he asked people to come in with him and rigged up an experiment in that factory building where they tied essentially a rope to a chassis and they pulled that chassis through on a track through the factory and they got some workers to line up along the track. And the workers added things to the chassis as it moved along this track. And Sorensen kind of watched this happen and timed what was happening and wrote some notes. And they repeated it again and again over the weekend. And the reason it became important was that on Monday morning Sorensen went in and chatted to his boss who was Henry Ford, and said “I think I'm on to something here. I think there's something interesting in this idea of reorganising the way in which we do production and manufacturing”. And of course, the thing that he was on to was the assembly line.
And this idea of a new way of organising production and manufacturing through this new system, what became a new system. And at the time that hadn't been how things had been done, and the new system combined a number of different factors that had already existed. So this idea of a very smooth running continuous process of moving things along a track an assembly line as it became known. The idea of having replicable parts that you manufacture separately and then assemble in a factory. And the idea that the thing that your workers should be doing is highly repetitive de-skilled tasks of assembly that are extremely repetitive as you build something in this new system as it became. A new way of doing work.
And as they say, “the rest is history”, because of course the assembly line as a way of doing work as a kind of a practice of production to use that phrase um was launched at Ford in 1913 and it was applied to the Model T the famous the famous car and that Ford manufactured at the time it shocked the world when Ford realized they could now make cars so cheaply that they could double the wages of their workers to five dollars a day and this was a staggering thing to do at the time and many other companies soon followed by lifting wages significantly. The Model T obviously went on to sell many millions of units as a as a car as a vehicle but much more important than that the same practice of production to use that phrase again then rolled out across uh the entire economy and across our lives and so it was that same model of the assembly line that had been developed was used to make washing machines which was used to make clothing um we'll come back to later it was used to make bread and there are some interesting lessons for how it was used to make bread. But I think just for now the kind of one point I want to bank up front is kind of what was the insight there, what was the Breakthrough that they'd come to? It wasn't a technology, right? It wasn't it wasn't like a piece of technology in any kind of real sense, it was a it was a way of working with existing technologies that had been around for quite a long time and it was a way of putting those technologies to use in a way that no one had managed to do before um it was it was the assembly line. If you're into this stuff and it kind of gets you off, you can sign up to Assembly magazine apparently which is a magazine which is dedicated to assembly lines which runs a competition called assembly plant of the year so and it has a free webinar that you can go along to. Um yeah the point being that it wasn't the technology it was about people it was about the way people are organized and you know people have been making cars by this point for about 30 years Carl Benz made cars in 1886 based on the internal combustion engine and if he said to his workers can you make me a Model T he would have been missing the point the whole point was you need to make things in a new way right and that was the insight. And so technology weirdly doesn't star in its own story the star of the story of technology is people and the way that we do the work and that is of course an insight that stays true today.
So why is this why is this relevant why is this important and because what we're seeing now I think emerges is an entirely new and different practice of production a new way of doing things a new way of making value and of course it's different to that model that was settled on in in the past what are the different elements of this of this new model that we in this room are part of putting into putting into being bringing into being, so we you know we tend to call it product working sometimes we call it agile sometimes we call it internet era ways of working, um the components I think you can debate how you kind of describe them, but I think they'd all be familiar to people in this room so the idea that you bring folk together into a cross-disciplined team that you then give significant autonomy to and that that team is the unit the unit um that generates does the work the idea of iteration so that we now integrate the learning and the doing in these quick cycles of learning and we try things out and we build things quickly, we put them in front of users and we have these high cadence cycles of learning. And the form of the digital platform so the sense that the things that we are doing now are not tangible physical things that we're making in factories they are platforms or products and so they're in extremely scalable and so they have a whole different economics behind them. And this is a profoundly big deal right this is this is an enormously big deal because it is a fundamentally different way of generating value but also kind of meaning in people's lives in in some senses, and we are part of this process by which this this whole new practice this whole new way of doing things is sweeping across our economy and our lives and and changing the way that things things are done. So I said that history Rhymes doesn't repeat but it Rhymes and so I do think there are sort of lessons we can learn from similarities and differences between how things played out um in the past. So one one interesting point to note is that none of this is new in a sense so what is new is the way in which these things have come together into a system a way of doing things, call it product work and call it agile what you like and that's that's also true last time. So when those approaches came together with Fordism, if you like to call it that, um none of those things were new, so assembly lines, or disassembly lines, if you like, have been used in the Chicago slaughterhouses for many decades they hung pigs Pig carcasses up on assembly lines and they dragged them through the factory and disassembled the pigs on these lines. They'd had done that for decades. By that point replicable parts had been used for many decades in gun manufacture in America in particular and obviously specialized tasks for this idea that workers should do these very very repetitive tasks to make things more efficient goes way back to Adam Smith and the kind of pin Factory of the of the late 18th century. So all of those things none of them were new but they were brought together into this system in a new way that was profoundly radical and of course the technologies themselves weren't new either because electricity even cars weren't a new technology if not that Ford discovered the car, what Ford discovered was a way of bringing these things together into a system, a way of a way of working and the same the same is true now right? So digital it's not new right, these technologies are now decades old, the transistor dates back to the 50s mid 50s late 50s um and even many of these uh approaches I guess that we're using you can read them back in the 70s in management theory you can obviously read them in the late 90s in the agile Manifesto and so on.
But I do think there's a an important point here that the time at which these things have come together into a system, in a way that really works, that really sort of sings as a system, is actually very recent, I would say, so it's only really I would say in the last 15 or 20 years that we've genuinely seen this thing solidify and sort of crystallize into a way of doing things that feels kind of like it's working right. And you know the codification of product work and the ways in which we do our work and agile even the agile Manifesto is not that old, they are quite recent right, so we're really early in in this thing and if you think just how profound the transformation was last time, how profoundly it swept across our society and changed the way that we do things and just how wide ranging it was right.
So mass production was you know, like mass production society changed obviously the way that we make things, but it changed even um aesthetics, the way we think about things and it led to whole artistic movements right this idea of um you know kind of warhol's pieces which are all about this kind of um mass consumerism and the kind of um the imagery and the aesthetic of consumerism and this idea of replicability and these high fidelity reproduction of things, this kind of sense of identikit products that were produced at massive scale right. It kind of was associated with this whole language and way of seeing the world productivity words like efficiency and a way of seeing problems and viewing the world right. So it changed us as people it changed the way we live our lives, it changed the way we do work, and it spawned even a kind of counter-cultural backlash for people whose one of my favorite movies The Graduate in the late 60s there was obviously a very profound counter-cultural backlash against this concept that we should be a bit like the machines right, we should sort of put ourselves in boxes we should be machine like in the way that we work we should sit in these little cubicles in our offices um we should be squares to use the phrase at that time. And as lovely moments in this film where Dustin Hoffman kind of feels greatly depressed at this prospect um and so there was this very profound counter-cultural push against what technology was doing to us or what this sort of way of way of thinking about things was doing to us.
And I just think the interesting question is will that happen this time is that happening this time already? And maybe we'll come back to that um come back to that in a moment.
So the point being, this is a big deal right this is a big deal and this thing that we're all part of is very significant and it comes with a very significant set of responsibilities on all of our parts for how we're engaged in this activity of applying this new way of doing things, this new way of thinking about things, this Cathedral we're building right, what does it all add up to, it's a big deal it's a big deal.
So that's the kind of the first sort of bit of context I wanted to bring is kind of historical analogy, the second is a metaphor, and bear with me here because this metaphor I'm just going to sort of introduce the metaphor, I find it quite helpful as a way of visualizing what is going on with the Digital Revolution and again appreciating just how big a deal it is just how significant this thing is. I don't know what computer game this is but I want to play it I'm sure I've played something like it at some point on the Nintendo.
So the metaphor is um if you imagine um the work of technological discovery as a mining operation in which people uh kind of swing pickaxes and chip away in the mine and go digging for new discoveries and looking for gems right looking for gems of technological discovery. And so if you visualize technological discovery in this way, how should we think about digital in that context? Now I think there's an argument for saying that digital isn't just a new technology we've discovered or a new gem that we've discovered in this kind of mining operation right, it's not just a new a new gem that we've unearthed as a technology and then we've kind of used or sort of taken out from the mine. And the way I think about digital is something bigger than that, so the metaphor I like to use is that in this mine one day someone was swinging a pickaxe at the coal face and they swung the pickaxe and to their great surprise they saw a sort of shining object and it turned out it wasn't a gem, it was a small hole and there was light shining through this hole and so they were intrigued by this and they swung away at the hole to make it bigger and the hole slowly got bigger and it grew to the size of a hand and then the size of a football and they kept swinging away and the hole got bigger and bigger. And soon it became big enough to step through this hole that had been unearthed or kind of opened up in the mine of technological discovery and what we discovered when someone was finally brave enough to step through this hole was it wasn't just a hole it was a portal. A portal to (I don't know what computer game this is someone else will know) a portal to an alien world and this is the way I like to think about or visualize what we have unearthed if you like with the digital revolution that we haven't just discovered the technology what we've discovered is this portal that we can step through into a different a different world or a different dimension. And I think this is a good metaphor because when you step through the portal into what I like to call ‘digital land’ right away from ‘physical land’ into ‘digital land’ or digital space, things work differently there. And we're only just discovering really in the last 10 or 20 years just how profoundly things work differently in digital space or in in the digital dimension right. And so to give some examples concrete examples you know what kind of laws apply in digital space that don't apply in physical land so laws like zero marginal cost so you can scale a service at zero cost in a way you just can't replicate a product in physical land at no cost. You can do that in digital land right. Laws like non-rivalry so two people can use a digital service without even noticing the other person's using it right which you can't do that in physical space, you can't share the same thing and have two people use it at the same time without noticing without fighting over it. In digital space you can share a piece of software, millions of people can use it at the same time and so this is a magical law, this is a this is a very different world that we've entered. And many other laws apply in digital space as we now know that don't apply in physical land, most obviously there's no physical space and so you can sort of move around digital land if you like instantly right there's no space there.
So where am I going with all of this? It's very liberating so if you go through the portal into digital land you can build Services/products that you could never have built in physical land and that would have seemed magical to people before we discovered this portal right? So you can build services that have access to almost all of the music and films that have ever been made for 10 pounds a month. This would have been unimaginable to people back in physical land before we discovered this new dimension. You can do things like give people access to all of the world's information instantly for free essentially right, before maybe not for free, but almost for free, and so what we're doing now is, and this goes back to the kind of practices I was talking about at the start, is we're learning ways to survive in this new dimension right learning ways to step through the portal and do things of value and put these laws to use. And it's very powerful it turns out and so we're proving able to do these quite significant, build these amazing companies create these incredible services uh and assemble this amazing power right so the companies that have gone through this portal and built companies and have assembled this unbelievable power that again would have been unimaginable to companies back in back in physical land, and whole new business models in a way almost a whole new form of capitalism is emerging on the other side of this portal right in digital space that is different is fundamentally different from the form of capitalism from the way things worked back in physical land. And so I again I like this as just a way of a way of seeing a way of thinking about the work that we're doing because it for me helps us appreciate just the sheer kind of profundity if you like, the significance of what is going on here. It’s not a new technology, it's not a tool that we've discovered, it's a whole new dimension in which we can operate differently.
And as we're discovering we are struggling we are struggling right we are struggling to govern this new dimension, we're struggling to live our lives well, we're struggling to relate to each other in this new dimension because things work differently there. I mean by the way it's being privatized um and that's the big deal right in in a way that we would never have let the moon be privatized when we sort of went to the moon. We didn't let private companies colonize or privatize the moon. We've let that happen in the digital dimension again big deal right. And so again I guess the point to bank here is that a profound responsibility comes with the work that we're doing because in a way what we are is is World Builders we're building a new world that works to new laws, and so there is profound responsibility that comes with the work the work of World building. So that's a metaphor, another way of seeing what's going on and again the takeaway is uh it's a big deal right, the work that we're engaged in is a big deal.
So the last thing I wanted to talk about is a story. And so I said at the start I was going to talk a bit about bread and manufacturing of bread. And this is a story I liked, I think there's an important lesson in this story.
So if I go back again to the early 20th century, so when these new ways of making things mass production were first coming into being uh one thing people looked at was was bread right. Bread is an important thing in our lives and it's a staple food and so people thought this is great, we can mass produce bread. And so people started to try to do this, to take these machines if you like, these assembly line processes, and make bread. Turns out it's very hard to mass-produce bread right. Bread is quite a particular thing it's organic it's quite um fussy for anyone who's tried to make bread and was like me tried to do lock down sourdough making and all of that malarkey, the first few loaves you make are a disaster or mine were. And it's quite hard to manufacture bread and so people tried and they burnt the bread, and the machines didn't work and the bread came out soggy or the crust didn't form, didn't look like this right. It looked like the early ones I tried to make at home. And it's tempting to say what happened next was a big sort of sinister plot or a big conspiracy, but I think actually it's more interesting than that which is it happened naturally and slowly and unintentionally. What happened was that we realized, you know what's easier than trying to change the machine to make the bread is change the bread to fit the machine right, and so this is what happened to bread right (shows picture of sliced bread). Um and this is a big deal again right. So, what happened was this kind of flip of means and ends right. So, we started off saying we're trying to make some of this stuff we're trying to make some nice bread uh in the end we ended up making this right we ended up saying it's so hard to change the machine to make what we want to make let's change the bread to fit the machine right. And then by the way we changed what people understood bread to be by marketing this bread, and so now this is what we mean when we say bread. It's square right and it fits the machine and it's not very good for us and all the rest of it um and I think there's quite a big lesson in this that technology has this um quite sinister habit of flipping means and ends without us necessarily realizing right, replacing the technology becomes the end, and the thing we were trying to do with the technology becomes not the thing we end up doing right? We end up changing the thing we're trying to do to fit what technology wants if you like to use that to use that language.
Now the kind of the sort of spine-tingling kind of the horror movie moment here is, are we the bread right? So, you know did we in the 20th century change ourselves to fit the machine right, hence Dustin Hoffman hence the frustration about like have we lost meaning and fulfilment in our lives because of the way we've changed the way we live to be like this right, and is this is this what we wanted is this what we meant is this what we intended.
So, I think that we should, that should linger a bit as a kind of as a thought as we go about our work. Do we lose the human right, do we lose the human so those are sort of three ways of thinking about what we're doing and three sort of um uh I think I guess thoughts to keep in mind as we go about as we go about the work that we do.
So, where does this all take us? So, I'm just going to finish with a few um reflections really on like what does that mean for the way we should go about the work if that if that is the bigger context within which we're working then how should we go about it? Um the first is uh sort of obvious which is as I've said throughout, it's a big deal the work that we're doing right there's a big responsibility that comes with it, and this point that it's not about technology that the work that we are doing is not about technology, it's about people and it's about ways of doing things ways of working ways of being even most profoundly, um and in a way this is an obvious point people have said this for many years it's not about the technology it's about the practices um but we know I think this argument is still not won right. And we all have the experience still particularly if you work in government, or of your boss or your client or your home sec coming to you and saying um can you build me an app? I would like an app, um and we all have this experience of saying no I will not build you an app I'm not going to build you an app because you do not need an app. Um and if you're in government I will not build you a hub. I'm not going to do it any more hubs, you do not need a hub um or a portal um and I will not build you something with AI. It's not what I'm going to do for you um and so we know this argument isn't won right. So this point that like the thing we are doing it's not about the technology, you cannot have a piece of technology this is not what this is about. This is about a way of working and what I can do for you is assemble a team that will work in the right kind of way to add value to your users, to your citizens, to your clients etc um and this is why we must keep saying ‘I will not build you an app’ right, ‘I will not build you an app’ we must stop building hubs and it's why we work in the open it's why we talk about the practices that we apply it's why we gather together in sessions like this to talk about each other and console each other on how [ __ ] difficult it is. And it's why it's not about digital it's about transformation right that's the word that matters most in this phrase.
Second reflection um if we think back to that metaphor of the alien dimension I think again just to realize how profound this thing is that is going on right, digital is not a technology, again it's a new dimension in which we can do things differently, and things that are different to the way we did things before. I just want to come back to that point about world building because I think one thing this means for me is that our work is about imagination as much as anything else right, it is about helping people to imagine and in a way unlearn and relearn what is possible in a new dimension right, in a way that is about quite fundamentally about reconceiving things and I think particularly in public sector work we have lost the ability to imagine to reimagine to relearn to unlearn. And so a lot of our work I think particularly in the public sector is about saying uh what if we built it from scratch, what if we built the School from scratch the hospital from scratch, what if we started again liberated by these new laws of the digital dimension. What would be possible in this new dimension? And so I think imagination and sort of practices of imagination and boldness and big questions are integral to our work. And so again, it's not about building the thing it's not about technology it's about asking big questions about how things can now be different, how things can now be better to kind of take that prompt of sort of being positive and hopeful um in this new world. The phrase I sometimes like to use is that ‘the work goes all the way down’ right, the work doesn't stop at the technology or the thing we're building, the work goes all the way down to some of these fundamental questions we’re asking about like, what is this organization we are part of and how could we reimagine it, how how would it be if we built it now in the digital dimension, liberated as we are about is amazing amazing laws and qualities of digital.
And the final reflection I think is just um let's remember the bread right. So let's like keep thinking about the bread as we go about our discussion because I do think there is a profound risk that we are doing it again right, that we are once again changing the bread to fit the machine, changing ourselves to fit the machine. And I think in the last sort of five years even quite recent recently we've started to talk about um surveillance capitalism, addiction capitalism, compulsion capitalism, um the ways in which this thing is changing us as people and the ways in which we had not intended for it to change us, and the way we relate to each other, and that's society um. And I think again this is this is a big deal I think you know lots of words can be used for this new this new economy I think I like the word Addiction and capitalism I think that feels right it feels compulsive this new new form of capitalism um and I think in particular the word optimization comes to mind right. So one of the things that seems to be true of these new technologies um is that they encourage us to think in terms of optimization, optimizing everything right, the sense of like iterating constantly and so for me in a way that last time around when we applied mass production technology is we ended up making these ident-i-kit products, feeling like we were being made into squares, being made into sort of machine-like um machine like people that we had to sort of fit into the box. This time around it's a bit different right because digital technology is different and this sense of optimizing everything I think is one of the warning signs I guess that makes me worry that we're changing ourselves again to fit what the technology wants of us as opposed to um staying human staying human. I was struck I was Googling optimizing you can optimize everything now as we know you can optimize your weekend, um how to ring the most out of your weekend and do weekends fly by too fast like the way to stop them flying by too fast is to ring the most out of every single hour. You can optimize your own face even Mims um and my favourite is you can optimize your life instead of turning it into a constant pursuit of optimizing your own life.
So, like we're doing it again right we're doing it again we're doing what the technology wants. We're thinking in a way the technology wants us to think because the technology is all about optimizing and life doesn't have to be it's all about optimizing. So it's changing us right, we're changing it's changing us. So let's just remember what we're trying to do here. Let's try and remember what we're trying to do um and let's like let's be more human right, let's be more human and let's remember that this word digital is an important word it's an important word and it's a good word, but let's remember the word human as we go about our conversations today and the kind of the many interesting discussions that I'm sure we'll have today. So, that is some food for thought hopefully provocative um ways of thinking about what we're doing and reasons it's important, reasons it matters, so that's some people thought up front I think we've got some time hopefully for questions so I will I will linger around and we have I think 10 or 15 minutes or so for questions.